In the wake of the Republican National Convention — part of an American presidential season that has Canadians as riveted as we are unnerved — I want to talk a little about information silos, and how we can work to talk past them even as the rhetoric on social and mainstream media alike grows tense with word of failing democracies and mass shootings the world over. I come to this conversation in part as a humanities scholar: specifically, as someone who studies how nineteenth-century British society narrated an ideological clash between new astronomical data, general philosophical methods, and long-standing spiritual beliefs. I also come to this conversation as someone raised to think critically, and independently, under a banner of conservative thought. It is in this second capacity especially that I’d like to discuss a possible path through what feels some days like a No-Man’s-Land of entrenched political views and blatant disregard for our shared humanity.
I grew up in a Progressive-Conservative household — “PC” referring, when I was a child, both to a national and to a provincial conservative party in Canada. My first “real” books were Ayn Rand’s Anthem and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, with their not-so-subtle warnings against the tyranny of collectivism. My father was an active member of the PC parties, so election seasons meant envelope-stuffing, door-to-door pamphleteering, and eating burgers and hotdogs with a great many charismatic, friendly people who cared deeply for their communities. While religion was a matter for me to decide for myself, as a freethinker encouraged to read broadly, my father’s politics remained a major component of household life. During elections, we of course had conservative signs in our front yard. We also subscribed year-round to The Toronto Sun, from which I always read the political op-eds (then the Max Haines crime column, then the “Sunshine Girl” page, then the comics). And since the PC party was a stark minority in our Toronto riding of York South-Weston, I grew up with a body of political information at odds with whatever I’d hear from others in the neighbourhood or at school.
This last factor was especially important to my critical development. When Ontario PC Premier Mike Harris enacted his Common Sense Revolution, I was the only child in my class who had read the accompanying “Blue Book” and heard conservative explanations for Education Minister John Snobelen’s new funding model for schools. This meant that, when teachers told students that layoffs were occurring because the conservative government had underfunded classrooms, I had a ready counterpoint: the government wasn’t directly laying off anyone; it was the school boards, placed in a funding model meant to equalize dollars-per-student across rural and urban areas and reduce the deficit, who chose to lay off on-the-ground workers rather than trim their own bureaucratic fat. This was the PC position, and when I held it, I could understand why others held it, too: It described a system of managerial excess that was hurting public education, and tricking everyday workers into thinking higher-level government was to blame instead. As stressful as it was to occupy a minority political view at the time, surrounded by students and teachers who regarded the PC Party as cold-blooded destroyers of their community, that schism proved an important epistemological stepping stone.
In particular, I grappled a great deal, in this schism’s wake, with the idea of objective truth. If I had my views because I grew up in a PC household, and others had their views because they grew up in NDP or Liberal households, what body of facts — if any — did we share as a society? What objectivities could any of us concede? Was there any way to make everyone happy? Did everyone deserve to be? Today, as a scholar, I regard the ability to hold ideas in tension as the crux of a humanities education, but this education should begin long before post-secondary. For me, it began in my conservative home.
In fact, despite offering conservative counterpoints at school, I was under 10 when I realized that I didn’t agree with everything my father believed. (My father would later, teasingly note that this was the great failing of raising a thinker — you could never be sure that they’d think alike.) One conversation was particularly transformative for me, because it was the first time I heard myself parrot a position with which I did not agree. He had been trying to explain a conservative principle regarding the unjust burden of taxation, and had used the example of a swimming pool: What if some people wanted a facility built, but others felt this was a waste of resources? Who should have to pay for the pool? I remember giving my answer automatically — the answer I knew he was after — but even as my father praised my choice (“the people who want the swimming pool”), I felt a strong sense of disconnect from that point of view. The answer didn’t feel right. But why?
For one, I knew I was being set up with the choice of facility — a swimming pool and not, say, a firehouse. But people aren’t always rational agents, so what might seem frivolous to some might seem self-evidently essential to others. What if only some people wanted a firehouse, for instance, and other people believed in waiting-and-seeing? Should everyone suffer from an ensuing fire because there was opposition to the resource? I knew taxpayers shared an investment in basic infrastructure like roads, sewage, and the electrical grid, but where did that sense of essential public services end? Was there an objectively correct standard, or was it arbitrary — and if arbitrary, how did ethical communities decide what to invest in collectively?
Also, I was and am the eldest of four siblings, so when my father posed the idea that the majority should not have to go along with the whims of the minority, I understood how catastrophically that could play out in the real world. On road-trips in the family station wagon — four of us crammed into the back with an extra seatbelt — there were six bladders and six stomachs to contend with, plus the possibility of nausea from reading on the highway, and any number of muscle cramps or family spats that might make the trips insufferable. In the micro-societal bubble of our brown ’84 Dodge Aries, we therefore had two people in positions of authority, four in the minority, and a relentless need to make concessions for the good of the whole.
My gut feeling, then, was that, although society could tell swimming-pool-lovers to build their own facility, this would never be a neutral choice. It would always be a choice that also fostered social division, such that ethical societies had to consider the unity cost of turning down one group’s sincere desire for specific resource allocation. Certainly, there are many things we all have to do on our own in life, but was there an objective line in the sand dictating where communal efforts should stop, and “by your own bootstraps” begin? Or was this, too, an arbitrary construct? And if arbitrary, by what mechanisms did an ethical society decide on its collaborative limits?
What I realized in the ensuing days and weeks was that, if we regarded the scope of essential public services as the end-result of a conversation — a negotiated give-and-take between a multiplicity of special interests — then at the end of the day, we wouldn’t simply have a swimming pool; we’d also have an increased sense of societal good will, and perhaps other public resources besides — resources that might not have emerged as possibilities until we started deliberating together over the pool.
What I couldn’t figure out at the time, though, was how this notion of communal well-being would fit into a conservative party’s mandate. What, to a traditional conservative, did being part of a “community” entail?
The answer is not simple, because for a time there were two major conservative parties in Canada, and in my late adolescence I grieved, as my father grieved, when the national PC Party and the Reform Party merged into their current form, the Conservative Party of Canada. The Reform Party, as a body of moral conservatives, caused a great many “Red Tories” (fiscally conservative, socially liberal people) to jump ship in that first year. I too had taken to calling myself a Red Tory, and at an Ottawa convention my father and I attended after the merger, I was stunned to discover a conservative party preoccupied not with economic issues, but social ones — specifically, the homosexual scare. Gay people wanting to marry? Gay people wanting to be around children (as if they weren’t already)? My heart sank when I found myself embroiled in argument with a sitting MP over whether homosexuality was “natural” and whether what happens between other animals in nature is a fair basis for deciding questions of human dignity. It was an argument that could not be won; gay people, to him, were simply an abomination. I was horrified by my physical proximity to proof that people in Canadian government could deny the humanity of their constituents — myself included, as a queer person at that convention.
I must add, though, that I found comfort soon after this confrontation in a washroom, from older PC members who saw me in tears, and who — after hearing my story — told me they were just as disturbed by the high-handed encroachment of Christian intolerance into party discussions that had previously been about jobs, foreign policy, and related resource-management. It was an upsetting time for a great many people, who saw the merger’s reduction of the Canadian political spectrum as a step towards American-style politics — but it was upsetting precisely because of the immense diversity of conservative views initially at stake. Many moved for moral reasons, for instance, to the rising Green Party — which, at its outset, boasted fiscal conservatism: taxing waste, not people; corporations, not income — but which later shifted from the language of economic pragmatism to rhetoric that better appealed to traditional liberals.
Prior to this merger, too, the national and provincial PC parties I had known were already a complicated intersection of high- and low-income families. Many ridings celebrated the conservative tendencies of first-generation immigrants (too liberal in their original countries, but firmly business- and family-values-oriented here), and happily drew persons from a wide range of backgrounds into the fold and onto the campaign trail. Other ridings retained a rhetoric of suspicion towards the influx of Other People — whose work ethics, displacement potential, and subsequent economic value remained suspect, even as anyone, of any colour or background, could become a leech in PC eyes by virtue of relying on social assistance or ending up in prison.
The sense of community cast by this uneven range of social demographics gave me the impression of a conservative party taking “all comers” who prioritized fiscal responsibility and the value of hard, independent work. And yet, the actual policies forwarded by the PC Party suggested stark biases towards certain demographics over others. For instance, well-to-do members talked about corporate and income taxes as an undue social burden, and lower-class members, who were living through more extreme financial pressures day-to-day, resonated deeply with the rhetoric of paying less — even when the party’s subsequent platform addressed the former’s tax brackets more than their own. The latter demographic didn’t resent the former for its success; rather, the latter looked forward to being that successful, too, and were already worried about who would try to take their money once they had any. In the meantime, they often advocated against anyone they perceived as getting an unfair advantage, when “everyone” was struggling to support their families on precarious budgets. Unsurprisingly, then, party platforms often stigmatized prison education and welfare programs as forms of social theft from those who worked hard without breaking the law — a rhetoric that established moral outrage as a fundamental facet even of ostensibly by-the-numbers conservative affairs.
Now, I had been taught from a young age the dignity of work. I framed the first five-dollar bill I ever earned, and as a young teen I babysat during the school year and nannied in summers, volunteering my day’s wages on principle when a scooter went missing on my watch. My first formal job was janitorial; I cleaned toilets at the Canadian National Exhibition, and I was proud to be earning my own money, irrespective of the nature of the work. And yet, this rhetoric of moral outrage from older conservatives confused me; if work was its own reward, instilling us with purpose and self-discipline and self-respect, along with financial independence, then why were so many people fixated on what other people were doing with their time? Why was the desire to shame or punish unemployed people more of a driving force around welfare policy than the desire to see others given the best chance to reclaim work’s inherent benefits by returning to their industries of best fit?
Sure, an out-of-work accountant could do manual labour in exchange for welfare — but at a cost to their long-term economic potential, eating up time better spent keeping their skills up-to-date; or interning as a step back into the industry where they’d have the greatest impact; or as needed, retraining for similar industries with better job prospects. When we treated work as something Other People — straw-people — were always trying to get out of, weren’t we diminishing the value of labour itself? How could we build a thriving economy based on punitive, not purpose-driven work?
As the above suggests, my conservative childhood taught me how to frame public policies in terms of optimized socioeconomic benefit. Prison education and arts programs were vital, I learned to argue, because studies showed that they reduced recidivism, which would in turn drive down future taxpayer costs, and return inmates to the workforce as taxpayers themselves. Social welfare systems similarly benefitted society as a whole, because even if a few people gamed the system, studies showed that children of parents on welfare had a better chance of breaking the cycle of social dependence, thus lessening our future tax burden. In this way, I wasn’t a “bleeding-heart liberal” when I advocated for seemingly non-essential social resources; I was demonstrating rational, conservative self-interest.
These days, I don’t hold any party allegiance. I vote my conscience, as best as I’m able in a first-past-the-post system that requires choosing either the best prime minister / premier or the best local MP / MPP. Sometimes I vote to keep a given candidate out of power. Sometimes I vote for the person whose party platform cleaves closest to my views. Sometimes I vote for the person who seems most likely to listen to competing perspectives on a local level, even if their party generally holds views that differ from my own. From plainly partisan beginnings, I quickly learned that politics, even in its North-American-celebrity-cult form, always works best when treated as an conversation, ever-contingent upon individuals willing to give and take.
However, if we ever excelled at this notion of give-and-take, I see fewer signs of it this year than most in the US and Europe. Maybe this has to do with the kind of panic that only 24/7 global media can engender, by highlighting an intense number of crisis events the world over. Or maybe this is a social media issue, in which ideological insularity — curated both by our conscious in-group choices and online algorithms beyond our kenning —makes it easy to dehumanize our opponents, on both sides of the fence, until we’re left with a sense of futility about ever seeing eye-to-eye again.
Whatever the cause, I know I’m seeing a lot of familiar conservative rhetoric around Donald Trump and Brexit (yes, even in little old Canada), but not much about how to build meaningful conversations with their advocates — fellow human beings, that is: family members, PTA colleagues, coworkers, people we interact with in our daily lives, who favour such right-wing extremes. Instead, I see the rhetoric I remember from my childhood, in classrooms filled with frustrated Liberal and NDP students and teachers who couldn’t fathom how the PC Party could be so dedicated to destroying our social contract. Today the charge feels the same: How can these Republicans and the older British generation be so dedicated to self-destruction?
Meanwhile, the lower- and working-class people behind both Trump and Brexit remain familiar to me. Like many members of Canada’s conservative parties, these are people who understand financial stress in ways that make them insular, rather than expansive, in their views about our social obligations to one another. They therefore resonate (even if it’s not to their actual benefit) with the claims of richer people that we’re all being asked to take on too much — to trust too many people with different backgrounds when our own communities seem unstable, to support too many people who break the law (e.g. undocumented workers, or inmates), and to give others a leg up (e.g. those on welfare, or historically marginalized peoples) when “everyone” has it rough. It rarely occurs to these folks that the “winners” in this system are another symptom of how broken that system is. Rather, the conviction that society is serving everyone’s interests except their own seems to reduce the question to How do I become one of the winners? How do I rise to the top in the current system? Because if they did it, surely they’ll help me do it, too.
And yet, for all that this tribalism has come to manifest in the most painful racism, xenophobia, and general fear-mongering, there lies at its core a thread of shared self-interest I am confident we can still build upon. Moreover, it’s a core thread we’re going to have to build upon — irrespective of the outcome of the upcoming U.S. presidential election (and its consequent impact on North American and Trans-Pacific trade), or the continuing fallout of Brexit for the rest of the European Union . As our culture continues to automate industry, we’re going find ourselves with fewer low-skill jobs to go around, and this requires rethinking how we constitute employment in the first place.
What we need to decide in the next few years is how we will value work , but thankfully, this is one political conversation we can still have across the spectrum, at a remove from specific candidate platforms or government decisions. To do so, though, we need to turn our initial reflections inward. We need to decide first and foremost what work feels like and means to us. Is it something we do under extreme duress — working three jobs, say, because we have too many dependents, or are alone with no support network, or because without work we would have to confront mental illnesses that might be our undoing? Or is work something we do in part out of necessity, but mostly because we enjoy the work itself? Could we stop working entirely, but choose not to, because work brings us a sense of community and purpose?
Once we have a better sense of why we, as individuals, do what we do, the next question becomes: Is this ideal? Do we want better for ourselves and for others — or because we had to suffer through degrading work just to get by, do we believe that others should have to do likewise to achieve the same standard of living? Is work supposed to be a carrot, or a stick? We need to think long and hard about this question, because any societal change is going to have an uneven impact — so even as we move towards a better future for everyone, we might find ourselves slower to reap personal benefits than our neighbours. Can we handle that? Or would we genuinely prefer that everyone else be miserable, too, if we’re miserable right now?
And if we need to come first in any policy decision that stands to improve society on whole, we’d do well to ask next what community means to us. Do we want to live in a society that optimizes safety and security for all, or do we believe that safety and security for some — i.e. those we regard as closest to us, ideologically and ethnically—matters most, even it comes at great cost to the safety and security of others? And if the latter, how much social disparity do we think we can accommodate before the safety and security of our in-group becomes contingent upon the safety and security of everyone else? Is our rational self-interest bubble the size of a city? The size of a province? The size of a country? Can even a country sustain a given level of safety and security if it thrives while the surrounding world burns?
These aren’t easy questions, especially as they extend from theory to praxis. Even if we acknowledge that we do work — desperately, degradingly — only because we must, how would we go about changing our circumstances? Even if we feel that work should be more carrot than stick, how much of an obligation does that give us to shoulder the load of our struggling fellow citizens? And even if a country can never enjoy long-term safety and security while the greater world burns, how do we go about effecting change on a global level, as citizens limited by our immediate and local responsibilities?
What I want to suggest is that, even if these aren’t easy questions, they remain questions we can raise, and should raise, across political-allegiance lines in the coming months. Irrespective of whether your family members or friends advocate political candidates or positions that you regard as society-enders, the social contract only ends when we give up on the conversation. And even then — even if someone has gone and soiled themselves because they were having a meltdown instead of using the facilities at the last pitstop, leaving a huge stink in the car for everyone else to deal with until the next exit — the road-trip isn’t over. The world goes on. All that changes is how much will need doing, whenever we’re ready to come together again, and rebuild what we’ve lost.